- Historic Sites
My Life With The Lone Eagle
The trouble with having (and being) a hero
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
My father was almost as enthusiastic about Lindy as I. He was a mildly profane civil engineer, and whenever he would see a photo of the Spirit of St. Louis in the newspaper, he would be amazed all over again that “that damned little crate could make it across that whole goddamned ocean.” And he often referred to Lindbergh as “that kid.” “How the hell could that kid have so damned much nerve?”
Our mother was a fine ragtime pianist, and her contribution to our family Lindbergh craze was musical. One day she came in with the sheet music of a new song, “Lucky Lindy.” On many nights after dinner we would gather at the piano to sing about him:
My sister did not join in these revels.
President Coolidge sent the USS Memphis across the Atlantic to bring the flier and his plane home. All of us, including my reluctant sister, went to the Majestic Theater up on Mission Street to see the newsreel of Lindbergh’s triumphant return. It was a splendid moment as he came down the gangplank at the naval yard in Washington, D.C., to be greeted by many high government officials and cabinet members and his mother. But he was wearing the dark blue suit from the balcony in Paris, and I had been hoping for the togs.
Then one day later in the year-sometime in the fall of 1927—came the biggest thrill of all. The Chronicle reported that Lindbergh would be flying into San Francisco in the Spirit of St. Louis. He was on a tour of the nation, planning to land at least once in each state. There would be a parade and a big celebration in his honor at each stop. No airplane had ever before landed in all forty-eight states.
Lindy arrived on a windy, chilly, San Francisco afternoon, a typical autumn day. The entire city was covered with a high fog bank. Fern and I sat in the back seat of our Model T Ford, and our father drove us down to the Embarcadero, the wide street that runs in a big curve along the bay. He found a parking place out on Pier 3, where he knew a longshoreman boss, and then the three of us walked up Market Street, pushing through the crowds, trying to find a good place from which to see the parade.
At third and market, in front of the Hearst Building, we found our spot. Our father stood behind us, as Fern and I sat on the high curbstone with our feet in the gutter. Mom had dressed us warmly—she disliked fog herself—but Fern grew chilled during the long wait. I held her hands in mine to keep her from complaining.
I thought that it was a pretty skimpy parade for such a big occasion. It consisted of an Army band from San Francisco’s Presidio, a couple of black Fierce-Arrow limousines filled with politicians and Army brass, and then, sitting upon the back seat of a big open touring car, the Lone Eagle.
There he was—at Third and Market! In my hometown! I’d seen his picture a thousand times by then. But in life itself, in the blue suit, he seemed even younger and skinnier than in the photographs. I felt a twinge of disappointment. He looked like an ordinary tall boy.
One night my father brought me a book called We. It was by Lindbergh—the story of his life and the flight. It was the first book I ever read.
Yet as the big car moved slowly up the wide street, I stood up and cheered. Lindy acknowledged the crowd with an occasional wave, and he had a kind of fixed smile on his face. I asked my father if Lindy was having a good time, and he replied, “Hell, son, I don’t know. He’s probably tired. The paper said this was the forty-seventh city on his tour.”
That night the city and county of San Francisco gave a banquet to honor the young hero. My father, who was a middle-level civil servant in the city engineer’s office, did not have enough clout to get invited. But he and I went down to the hotel where the dinner was being held, and we found a cop who let us into the back of the hall to hear Lindbergh’s speech.
When the meal was over and cigar smoke began to cloud the room, Mayor Rolph introduced the nation’s hero. James P. Rolph was a handsome silver-haired man, and he had just the right kind of deep, sentimental Irish voice for a moment like this. After a standing ovation Lindbergh began to speak. His voice was high-pitched, almost squeaky, and after the mayor’s graceful words he seemed ill at ease.
I had expected the speech to be all about the grand challenge and great excitement of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in that little plane, but Lindy mentioned his flight only briefly. The speech was quiet, and there was nothing exciting about it. It was, rather, an earnest message about the importance of civil aviation to the American future. My hero explained the need for every town to build a municipal airport as soon as possible. As we drove home, my father said that “the kid” had some pretty good ideas. I saw then that it was a speech for politicians and civil engineers, not for me.